I mentioned in my “Redbox” article that we brew beer; both Seth and I brew our own beers with some frequency. I wasn’t feeling inspired to write anything about our business or processes this week, so I thought I’d write a follow-up post.
The process of brewing is just chemistry. Essentially, providing the necessary ingredients and energy to produce chemical reactions. The ingredients (as laid out by William IV, the Duke of Bavaria in 1516) are water, hops and grain. Today, we also add yeast, though it naturally grows on the grains. To brew, first you “mash” the “grist” (i.e. cracked grains) by simmering them in water, usually around 150°F. Then you “sparge” the grains, by putting the grist into slightly hotter water, to extract more of the sugars. Combine the sparge water with the mash water, now called the “wort,” and boil the wort for about an hour (more or less depending on the style) while adding the hops at different intervals (also depending on the sytle). The hops act as a preservative, but also add the bitterness and the floral nose to the flavor of the beer.
After you have boiled with hops, you have to cool the wort to about 70°F before you can add the yeast. Most brewers need special equipment to chill the wort, or it can take a frustratingly long time to get the wort down to temperature. As I live at the base of Millcreek Canyon, and the creek runs through by backyard, I’m really low-tech: I just put my kettle into the creek behind a jetty that I built. Millcreek is fed year-round by snow-melt from the mountains and, even in the heat of August, it runs at 46 °F or below. Since this cool water is constantly rushing past the kettle, I can chill my wort in about 10 minutes.
Once the wort is chilled, you add yeast. Yeast eats sugar and “poops” alcohol and carbon dioxide. Put the yeast and the wort together in a carboy or a food-grade bucket, give it a few weeks and you have beer! To get the wonderful carbonation, you add a little more sugar (“priming sugar”), pour the beer into bottles and cap them. Then, all the carbon dioxide is captured in the bottle with the beer.
It was my father-in-law who got me into brewing. My in-laws are in the process of moving and wanted to get rid of any non-essential stuff to facilitate a quicker move, so they gave me all of his brewing equipment. The first couple of beers I brewed were from a “kit,” which gives you a certain amount of malt extract and flavoring grains, hops and yeast; follow the instructions, and you have beer.
Very quickly, I realized that the majority of the taste of the beer was dependent upon factors that I couldn’t control by buying a kit. So, I moved to brewing “all grain.” It takes much longer, but gives the brewer the ability to control many more aspects of the final flavor of the beer.
When you live in Utah, you realize that any beer you buy in a grocery or convenience store is weak (by law it can be no more than 4% alcohol), and I find that it all has a poor after-taste that I don’t enjoy. The only place you can purchase full-strength beer is in a liquor store where it is not refrigerated, and you have no idea how long it has been sitting around before you’ve purchased it (or how long it was on a truck, in a warehouse, what light it was under, at what temperature it was stored, really, any of the conditions that can ruin a beer). I have bought more skunky beer in Utah than anywhere else I’ve lived, and I was sick of it.
Additionally, I’ve never found one of my favorite beers, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, for sale in Utah. So, for about the past year, I’ve been brewing monthly batches of a Two-Hearted “Clone” so that I can work on perfecting my brewing techniques. It has been a great experience to see how small changes to the process (changing the mashing temperature, swapping out one grain for another, pitching a different type of yeast, switching one hops for another) can make astonishing changes to the final product.
If you’re ever in Salt Lake City and would like to brew with us, feel free to reach out! Seth and I regularly will make a day of it by inviting several friends over to my house and brewing numerous beers for anyone who wants to participate.